It’s one of the biggest high school basketball tournaments in the country and has quickly become the destination of choice for teams across the province.
The ninth annual Brandon Sun Spartan Invitational once again brings 32 teams from Manitoba, Ontario and Saskatchewan to the Wheat City for three days of competition starting this afternoon at five gymnasiums across the city. And for the host Spartans, it’s clearly one of the highlights of the year.
"Definitely, it’s a chance to play at home in front of our fans and do our school proud," said Spartans senior guard Isaak Stark, who made the all-star team in last year’s BSSI.
"Not only do we get to play against other teams in 3A and 2A all throughout Manitoba, we also get to see who else is out there for 4A competition this year in Manitoba and what some of the better teams in Manitoba look like and how we rank with them, too. … So we’re pumped."
The host Spartans tip off the BSSI by battling the Glenboro Panthers at Neelin at 2:10 p.m. In all, 80 games will be played over the next three days at Neelin, Crocus Plains, Vincent Massey, Assiniboine Community College and New Era School.
"Definitely, it’s become a tradition," said Spartans coach Don Thomson.
"It’s kind of our holiday tradition, which is something back in 2004 when we started putting some of the pieces together, that’s what we wanted it to become and it’s something we all look forward to. It’s a lot of work, but the kids get excited … and it gets real energy going around the school."
As always, the tournament is divided into two tiers of teams, with the top Victoria Inn Division returning Winnipeg’s Oak Park Raiders, the two-time defending champions who feature 2011 BSSI tournament MVP Junior Sesay again this year. Also back are the Garden City Fighting Gophers, last year’s Manitoba AAAA high school champions, who have returned provincial championship MVP Josh Magpantay and 6-foot-6 post player Tynan Reyes. The top division also features Regina’s Campbell Tartans, who won a silver medal at last year’s Saskatchewan AAAAA provincials.
Meanwhile, the second-tier Tri-Star Screen Printing Division features the Westman teams in the tournament — Neelin, Massey, Crocus, Glenboro, Killarney, Minnedosa and Dauphin — in another group of 16 teams.
"I think for the basketball enthusiasts in town, it’s a great opportunity to come out and see what is out there not only in Westman, but throughout the province as far as young basketball talent that is up-and-coming," said Thomson, whose Spartans advanced to the final of the Tri-Star Division last season before falling to the Daniel McIntyre Maroons.
"We’ve had the teams out of Thunder Bay (Westgate and Winston Churchill) for the past five years and they’ve become a real big part of it … And we’re fortunate that Campbell Collegiate is one of the top 5A schools in Saskatchewan right now and they love coming to it early in the year to kind of get an idea of where they match up against the Manitoba 4A teams. So it’s a great, great weekend for all involved."
The Spartans return nine Grade 12 seniors this season, although it appears they may be without their top player this weekend — BSSI all-star Theo Farough is battling illness — as they try to return to the Tri-Star Division final.
"That’s always the goal, but right now, we’re just trying to get better on a day-by-day basis," Thomson said.
Massey and Crocus also return nine Grade 12 seniors this season and are anxious to see what they can do this week.
"It’s a good way to kind of measure yourself in the early season and see how you match up against other teams early on," said Plainsmen coach Bart Walker, whose team knocked off the Spartans in last season’s city final. "You can scout out and see some teams that you normally wouldn’t be able to see, so it’s nice to have that. … It’s a little home advantage for us, but there will be some good teams this week."
While the Spartans and Plainsmen made their pre-season debuts at tournaments last weekend, the Vikings will play their first game of the school year this afternoon and can’t wait to get started.
"The guys are excited to play," said Vikings coach Brett Nohr. "We’ve got nine returning from last year and it will be exciting to see how they stack up against the other Grade 12s in the province. We’re just looking to get in some game action and see how we match up."
The tournament wraps up with championship games on Saturday at Neelin, with the Tri-Star Division final slated for 5:10 p.m., followed by the Victoria Inn Division championship game at 7 p.m.